Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser drove in and out of the inferno.
Parnelli Jones glanced across the infield, saw the dense smoke hovering over the front straightaway and prayed it wasn’t Jim Hurtubise.
A.J. Foyt figured it was bad but tried to block it out.
Four of the major players in the 1964 Indianapolis 500 can still recall the details 50 years later. Vividly.
“A very tough day,” said Foyt. “We lost a couple of good guys and that took the joy out of my win.”
The ghastly crash that killed Eddie Sachs and Dave McDonald on the second lap brought out instant horror, a red flag and reform that changed the face of the greatest spectacle in racing. And, even though it turned out to be the last hurrah for the front-engine roadster, fuel cells were mandated and a minimum was put on pit stops, the indelible memory of that day was the crash, the fire, the dark clouds of smoke rising above the front-stretch grandstands and the impending gloom.
When McDonald spun exciting Turn 4 and bounced off the inside wall and into the path of Sachs, it triggered a fireball that erupted into something reminiscent of a World War II battle scene.
“It was like a black curtain had been pulled across the track,” recalled Rutherford.
The photo that accompanies this story was snapped just before a one-car wreck mushroomed into the towering inferno. It shows McDonald sliding across the track and into the path of Sachs, Rutherford, Ronnie Duman and Unser – who were lined up nose-to-tail trying to figure out an escape route.
And it also illustrates how close two future Indy 500 winners came to death.
“I saw a flash of a red car and it exploded,” said Rutherford. “Eddie (Sachs) was right in front of me and I was hard on the brakes. He (Sachs) veered a little left and I saw two tailpipes (McDonald) sticking out of the flames so I turned right.
“I went under Eddie’s car and my car rode up on the wall.”
Sachs slammed into McDonald, which set off a huge explosion of the gasoline-filled tanks.
“I couldn’t see anything but fire and smoke so I just buried the throttle because I didn’t want to get stopped in that mess,” said Unser, who was wheeling the 2,300-pound Novi for Andy Granatelli. “I just closed my eyes and hoped for the best.”
Unser rear-ended Duman, pushing his car into and past the burning cars of McDonald and Sachs, where it slid backward into the inside wall on fire. Then the Novi rammed Rutherford’s Watson roadster as both cars limped down the track but out of purgatory.
Jones, destined to have a great duel with Foyt before his trusty roadster “Calhoun” caught fire on a pit stop on lap 55, saw what had to look like Armageddon as he slowed down the backstretch.
“All I could think about was my pal Hurtubise because he had a 100 gallons of fuel on board,” said Jones. “I figured he was right in the middle of it until he pulled alongside of me in the short chute and waved.”
As he rolled through Turn 3 Foyt couldn’t believe what he saw: “I thought the grandstands were on fire.”
Sachs was crushed and reportedly died instantly, while McDonald somehow lived for two hours before succumbing to his ghastly burns and inhaling flames.
Rutherford finally stopped his crippled Bardahl Special, which was dragging a set of fuel injection horns from Sachs’ car after he submarined it. He took a trip to the hospital to check on some minor burns and then walked back to Gasoline Alley where a shoestring with a lemon attached to it was found in his belly pan. It had been around Sachs’ neck.
Unser refused to go to the infield hospital, instead rubbing engine oil on his blistered neck as he went looking for a ride.
“I needed to make a living and feed my family so I went up and down the pits looking to see if anybody needed a relief driver,” he said. “It looked like to me that Johnny Boyd didn’t want to go back out so I asked his owner if I could take over and he said yes. But then Boyd changed his mind so I ended up watching.”
The three-time Indy winner, whose brother Jerry had been killed at the Speedway in 1959, had the emotional makeup necessary to survive that deadly era.
“I was pretty sure we’d lost a couple of drivers but there was nothing I could do, it was part of our sport back then and you couldn’t dwell on it.”
Foyt didn’t want to hear anything about death during the 90-minute stoppage to clean up the crash site, while Jones smoked a cigarette and wondered if he would be able to keep up with Jim Clark and Bobby Marshman when the race resumed.
Clark’s Dunlop tires failed and wrecked his suspension, Marshman was leading when he bottomed out and developed an oil leak and Parnelli had to jump out of his burning car. Rodger Ward was forced to make five pits stops and Foyt cruised to his second Indy triumph.
In the aftermath, national newspapers like The Washington Post and Chicago Tribune called for the Indianapolis 500 to be stopped. Sanctioning body USAC got attacked for allowing unlimited fuel to be carried on board so Goodyear and Firestone got behind developing fuel cells, which were mandated for 1965.
Fifty years later, while looking at himself about to drive into hell on wheels, Unser shakes his head. “I had no idea there were two explosions until I saw this picture. Eddie had no chance, did he? Man, just another second or two and it’s me or Johnny instead of him.”
Rutherford, who conquered the Speedway in 1974-’76-’80, understands all about fate. “I was very fortunate in my career,” he reflected. “Especially that day. It wasn’t my time.”